Sunday, February 26, 2017

Movie Review: ARRIVAL (2016) Starring Amy Adams


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien
Runtime: 116 min
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Purchasing Links: DVD, Blu-ray

Read the review after the jump.


Review by Popa Razvan

Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" is a profound sci-fi drama that unlike Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" doesn't waste its potential with a cliched third act. It's also not the best science fiction film ever made, if that's what the critics may have lead you to believe. It gets pretty damn close to perfection, but doesn't quite get there.

The film is based on the novella "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang and it is centered on the titular arrival of twelve alien spacecraft on our planet. The twelve ships are spread out in different locations around Earth, but the main focus is on the one in Montana, where linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try and develop a way to communicate with the creatures.

Arrival Movie Image 1

I won't spoil anymore of the contact between the aliens, dubbed in the film as "heptapods" because of their seven legs, and the humans, except to say that the effort of communication is hindered by humanity's unwillingness to unite and work together, which ultimately becomes the film's big theme. It reminded me of James Cameron's extended version of "The Abyss", in which the aliens were very worried about mankind's destructive nature and threatened to wipe us out unless we got our act together. That film's context was that of the Cold War and the danger of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. "Arrival" also benefits from our current global context of uncertainty and paranoia and tries to teach the lesson that unless we learn how to communicate, we may end up on the brink of destruction.

It might sound like the film is just a preachy bit of arthouse sci-fi. It's not. It's a complex drama that speaks of both the darkness and beauty of humanity in a way that isn't pushy or manipulative, but well paced and involving, wondrous as we learn more about the aliens and their way of thinking and thrilling when the stakes are raised to dangerous levels. Amy Adams' amazing performance is also an important factor in keeping us immersed in the proceedings, as she encompasses everything the movie is trying to say. That's a big burden to carry for any actor/actress, but Adams gets the job done and then some.

Arrival Movie Image 2

The film, however, has its problems. It's much better at being an existential drama than a science-fiction. The reason for this is that the science part is interesting at first, but ends up skipping too many beats. While the initial contact and the third-act revelation are extremely well handled, the middle portion of the film, particularly the parts dealing with how Louise deciphers the alien language, are muddled. I understand that the efforts of the science team are meant to benefit from a certain "suspension of disbelief", but in this case, everything is just rushed away with the help of a brief voice-over. To me that was disappointing. While films like "Interstellar" might drive people crazy with an over-abundance of exposition and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, in this case I would have loved another 10-20 minutes of mumbo-jumbo. Instead, the plot insisted on moving forward while only teasing the science of it all. Still, I suppose just having the basics of linguistics in a mainstream movie is something of a breakthrough.

Arrival Movie Image 3

The cinematography, visual effects and original score contribute greatly to the movie's tense atmosphere. The production design is also clever in that it doesn't try to over-design the alien craft, which looks like a big rock, or the aliens themselves. This isn't a film meant to dazzle the senses. Its purpose is to build atmosphere, and it succeeds in spades.

Johann Johannsson's score in particular is very ambitious and plays well into the film's themes of communication and linguistics. It's not a very good album listen, though. Unfortunately, no matter how technically clever it tries to be, the score is ultimately overshadowed by Max Richter's emotional powerhouse song "On the Nature of Daylight" that plays in the beginning and end. This is exactly the reason why Johannsson's score wasn't eligible for an Oscar nomination. According to the Academy's rules, an original score is deemed ineligible if it has been diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or any music not composed specifically for the film. Richter also scored the HBO series "The Leftovers", another exploration of the dark depths of humanity, and I personally would have loved to see him score "Arrival". Perhaps the film could have used a score that was less focused on being so calculated and clever and just aimed for the heart.

Arrival Movie Image 4

Villeneuve once again proves he is a terrific director, able to convey the most complex emotions and thought-provoking themes through imagery and sound, building a visual language of his own that speaks to the viewer on a basic, primal level. "Arrival" might not be the perfect sci-fi, but it's a brilliantly intimate portrait of humanity.



  • A good script and strong direction from Denis Villeneuve avoid alien movie cliches
  • Strong performance from Amy Adams
  • Great production values aid the film's ambitious scope and generate an immersive atmosphere
  • Powerful themes

  • Neglects the science in science-fiction



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